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Taoiseach Simon Harris being greeted on the steps of Stormont Castle by First Minister Michelle O'Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly as makes his first official visit to Northern Ireland. Alamy Stock Photo

European Elections Northern Ireland deserves a seat at the table in Europe – it is unique

Emma DeSouza says voters in the Republic also factor in Northern Ireland when they cast a vote in the EU elections.

THE 2024 EUROPEAN elections are coming down the tracks – candidates have been announced and priorities are established.

But the island of Ireland is now home to one of the largest populations of disenfranchised citizens in the European Union  – Northern Ireland, which has lost its voice in Europe. It’s a unique case as the North navigates its standing in a post-Brexit world. Can Ireland’s political candidates and successful MEPs help the North to reclaim its voice?

Northern Ireland has an electorate of 1.3 million and a population of 1.9 million – every person born in the North has a birthright to Irish citizenship and, therefore, EU citizenship. The European Union was a key source of inspiration for John Hume and, in turn, for Northern Ireland’s peace process. In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Hume spoke emphatically about the influence of the European Union on the framework and structure of the Good Friday Agreement, stating that the European Union is “the best example in the history of the world of conflict resolution.”

Hume was a proud European like so many in Northern Ireland; how tragic a turn of events that the voices of Northern Ireland’s next generation of peace builders are now silent in Europe. 

Post-Brexit reality

Following the Brexit referendum, a flurry of suggestions was made by political representatives to maintain some form of Northern representation in Europe, from observer status to the creation of a Northern constituency. The challenge with the latter is that Ireland has one of the most exclusionary voting systems in Europe; only Ireland, Malta, Slovakia and Czechia prevent their citizens abroad from voting in European elections.

Ireland not only limits voting in European elections but prevents the vast majority of Irish citizens resident outside the state from voting in any election. Creating a system that would enable Irish citizens in Northern Ireland to vote for MEPs would require a significant overhaul of Ireland’s electoral system. Considering the long-delayed referendum on extending presidential voting rights to Irish citizens outside the State, it is of little surprise that the idea never gained political traction.

In the end, Northern Ireland lost its three seats in Europe while Ireland gained two, currently held by Fianna Fáil’s Barry Andrews and Fine Gael’s Deirdre Clune. Both newly elected MEPs made early commitments to ensure Northern Ireland was not voiceless in Europe; Andrews said he would be considering taking a few days a year to engage with representative groups in Northern Ireland, and whilst the frequency may not have been as consistent, Andrews has led three delegations from Northern Ireland to Brussels and is a founding member of the Belfast Brussels Forum.

Clune’s record on Northern Ireland is harder to establish, the Ireland South MEP is not running in June’s election, with the party selecting fellow Cork native John Mullins as their replacement candidate.

Whilst perhaps well-meaning, inviting a limited delegation of selected Northern Ireland representatives to Brussels once or twice a year is not an adequate analogue to full representation. Rather, it could be perceived as lip service while Ireland’s dominant political parties benefit from additional seats in Europe. In ad hoc engagements that do take place, Northern Ireland representatives are often limited to discussing post-Brexit arrangements or trade. The return of the NI Assembly provides limited mechanisms for political engagement in regard to the application of EU law and operations of the Northern Ireland Protocol, but wider society remains largely silenced.

Stuck in limbo

Northern Ireland had no voice on key EU Bills such as the AI Act, Nature Restoration laws, and the EU Migration Pact despite the fact that, as one island, people in the North are equally impacted by the threats posed by AI technology, climate change and biodiversity loss, and immigration and migration policies.

In place of creating a Northern constituency, political parties could have sought out Northern candidates. Sinn Féin has selected Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP Michelle Gildernew to run for Ireland North, while Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have failed to select any Northern candidates. Fianna Fáil Senator Niall Blaney has said he will be a “conduit” for the North in Europe, but it shouldn’t be Southern reps speaking for the North; Northerners should have the opportunity to speak for themselves.

A 2023 survey from European Movement Ireland demonstrated that people in Northern Ireland feel closer to Europe than to Britain by a margin of 60 per cent versus 30 per cent. 74 per cent of respondents from Northern Ireland said they believe the North should have representation in Europe, with 51 per cent of Republic of Ireland respondents echoing the sentiment.

It is widely considered that Brexit has accelerated the timeline toward a United Ireland; rather than an abstract romantic notion for Northern nationalists, a United Ireland is often firmly about a return to the European Union. It is therefore pressing that Ireland takes steps to create a more cohesive all-island approach in Europe. So far, Ireland’s political institutions are failing to meet the litmus test; whilst the possibility of a Northern constituency may have passed, more Northern candidates should be selected, and additional measures could be implemented including the recruitment of Northern policy advisors and bedding in more Northern Ireland representatives across the architecture and framework of Ireland’s European infrastructure.

A lot can happen in five years – those elected to represent Ireland in Europe in June could be serving through a truly transformative period for the island of Ireland, with the possibility of a Border Poll inching forward. It is therefore essential that those elected see Europe through an all-island lens. Only 49 per cent of the electorate in the Republic of Ireland voted in the 2019 European elections; 1 in 2 people opted to stay home. For those who plan to do so again, I would ask you to reconsider; you are fortunate enough to have a vote, whilst hundreds of thousands of Irish people North of the border do not. If not for yourself, use your vote for them.

Emma DeSouza is a writer and campaigner.


This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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